Opera North’s current revival of Jo Davies’ stylish 2012 production of Carousel falls neatly into the 70th Anniversary year of the show’s premiere at New York’s Majestic Theatre, on 19th April 1945. Carousel has sometimes been subject to unfavourable comparisons with Oklahoma!, the partnership’s previous popular success. Back in 1945, audiences were unprepared for the story of Billy Bigelow, a drifter who kills himself to avoid a long prison sentence. Billy’s spirit is allowed to return to earth for just one day to make amends and help his unhappy fifteen year-old daughter. Liliom, the titular anti-hero in Ferenc Molnar’s play – the source for Carousel – signally fails in this task and is presumably consigned to hell. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to create an uplifting ending to their musical play. The rebellious fairground barker ultimately earns a place in Heaven by encouraging his daughter at her Graduation ceremony. Nonetheless, for some people Carousel can seem (almost unbearably) poignant. There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house during Billy Bigelow’s death scene; it is one of the truly heart stopping moments in musical theatre. The “Kleenex test” is a crucial measure of a successful Carousel – Davies’ production passed with flying colours in 2012 and does so again with a largely new cast directed for this revival by Ed Goggin.

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The sadness is relieved by a rich seam of comedy achieved largely through the device of the “second couple” – Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow. But Carousel also has a sinister undercurrent. Rodgers’ quirky dissonances in the Prelude lead into the menacing brass-topped themes and restlessly stirring strings of the Carousel Waltz which set the tone of the show. Davies picks it up in her opening pantomime tableau with the garishly coloured carousel horses and associated grotesque Fairground sideshows such as the Bearded Lady.

An unsettling atmosphere is subtly created; Keith Higham‘s Billy Bigelow chats up Gillene Butterfield‘s Julie Jordan and is confronted by Michelle Moran‘s chilling Mrs Mullin, the blousey carousel owner who hired Billy. We soon realise that the azure blue sky, fluffy sirrus clouds, the falling blossom and the quaint festooned coloured lights of a New England fishing community are but a camouflage for poverty, insecurity and danger.

Anthony Ward‘s cinematic, revolving two level set which occupies almost the full width of the proscenium arch at Leeds Grand Theatre creates an ever-changing tableau from the Amusement Park to Nettie Fowler’s picturesque saltbox house overlooking the ocean. There is a sense of big open space for the song and dance numbers like the rousing, sundrenched “June is bustin’ out all over” and “A real nice clambake”; both of which showcase David James Hulston‘s spirited choreography for the entire company of singers and dancers. The eerie Dream Ballet scene is choreographed by Elisabetta da Aloia and set against a menacing grey sky and foaming breakers. Bruno Poet‘s soft lighting crowned by a heavenly halo of lights which descends from the fly tower brilliantly responds to the changing moods.

Chorus and principal singing is virtually faultless; Keith Higham covered the role of Billy Bigelow in 2012 and now takes over in his own right. Higham is a fine actor who sings, rather than an opera singer who can act. He oozes magnetic youthful testosterone as Billy, who although in urgent need of anger management, has managed to gain a reputation for stealing the hearts of impressionable young ladies. Higham’s light lyric baritone is ideally suited to musical theatre. The beautiful “If I loved you” sequence with Butterfield’s Julie Jordan is poised and tinged with yearning. Billy’s famous “Soliloquy” (My boy Bill, and My Little Girl) exudes innocence, playfulness and youthful ardour. The couple are well matched vocally and they create that all important chemistry. Her sweetness and forlorn air of resignation in “What’s the use of wond’rin” is heartbreaking.

Yvonne Howard‘s tough but tender Nettie Fowler is rock solid. Howard’s clear and steady rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” will dissolve hearts of stone. Aoife O’Sullivan as Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge, aka Mrs Enoch Snow, bubbles with a delicious sense of comedy. Joseph Shovelton returns as her puritanical sardine-besotted husband. He controls the couple’s impeccably dressed and regimented children with a shrill blast of his pocket whistle. Shovelton’s bright and pristine high tenor is perfectly tailored to the role.

Stuart Neal creates a suitably wiry and greasy Jigger Craigin whose physicality dominates the all male number “Blow high, blow low”. Jigger’s attempts to teach Carrie Pipperidge some tricks of self-defence so that he can have a furtive cuddle are a comedy highlight – just before tragedy strikes.

Anthony Warren‘s mysterious trench-coated Heavenly Friend guides Billy’s rebellious spirit away from earth. this sets the scene for his confrontation with the deceptively genial Star Keeper – an interesting characterisation from Russell Dixon who, dressed in a splendid cream suit with matching shoes, lords the place like a veteran movie mogul. At this point, I still regret the deletion of Billy’s powerful song in which he defiantly demands to be taken before “The highest judge of all”.

Louise, Billy’s daughter, is danced by Alex Newton (who alternates performances with Beverley Grant). The tense and moving scene in which Billy’s spirit makes himself visible to his unhappy daughter for the very first time is another of those lump in the throat-inducing moments in this production.

Opera North have returned to the original 1945 orchestration which means an orchestra of around fifty – generous by musical theatre standards at the time. Rodgers’ score has a sumptuous symphonic quality and deserves nothing less. The Orchestra of Opera North’s performance of this wonderful music, conducted by James Holmes, has a certain translucency. The inner detail is astonishing; I don’t think that I have ever previously noticed the delightful lilting counterpoint for the high strings in “A real nice clambake”. The rippling chords from the lone harp that introduce the grief-stricken Julie’s faltering start to “You’ll never walk alone” had an otherworldly feel – and that brings me to the Graduation Ceremony. The entire company, dressed in the muted Sunday best of Anthony Ward‘s elegant early 20th century costumes, are seated in rows facing upstage. As the reprise of this great anthem swells to an exultant climax, the stage slowly revolves until the company is directly facing the audience. A bright star shoots towards the heavens as Billy’s spirit leaves his daughter’s side, perhaps for ever. Uplifting it certainly is, but you’ll still need the Kleenex!

Carousel continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 23rd May. The production then tours to Norwich Theatre Royal, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, and Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Don’t miss it.

4 stars

Geoffrey Mogridge

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